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SYFY WIRE lizards

Western banded geckos specifically body-slam scorpions, unlike the other bugs they eat

If this was Mortal Kombat, Scorpion would be the fatality.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Western banded gecko

Behold the western banded gecko. It appears innocuous, a creature unlikely to lunge at you — but suddenly goes into full throttle mode when a scorpion is on the menu.

This desert lizard often craves dune scorpions, most likely because, despite their menacing looks, they are rather slow arthropods easily found creeping along in the hot sand. The only thing between a gecko and dinner is the threat of being stung. What does a hungry gecko do? It grabs the scorpion and thrashes around unbelievably fast, slamming it again and again until it is at least immobilized, if not dead, before finally gulping it down. The gecko is unscathed.

You have to see this gecko in action to believe what it is capable of. Watch the video below and prepare to be as stunned as biologist Rulon Clark was when he witnessed this behavior. Clark, who led a study recently published in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, found out just how violent these otherwise harmless reptiles can get with their poisonous prey when he first witnessed a showdown in the Sonoran Desert as a grad student. Now a professor at San Diego State University, he has seen it up close.

“There’s probably a tradeoff between continued thrashing (which is no doubt energetically expensive) and certainty of incapacitation — at some point, if the scorpion still isn’t completely dead, I think they just give up and chomp it down,” Clark told SYFY WIRE.

Geckos aren’t the only animals willing to fight for (and with) their food. The desert can be a brutal place, and whatever has evolved to survive in the scorching sun still needs to escape being hunted by something else. Road runners will seize rattlesnakes by the backs of their necks and bash them to the ground before swallowing them whole. Kangaroo rats may not eat the snakes, but they can avoid a potentially lethal bite by using their powerful hind legs as weapons. It isn’t only desert creatures. Seals will slap fish around before feasting on them.

To figure out exactly what the gecko does to stomach an otherwise dangerous meal, Clark and his research team gave them insects in the lab to compare their eating habits when faced with a scorpion. The gecko which was filmed is seen easily snapping up grub. Give it a scorpion, and it suddenly starts thrusting its body around in a frenzy in an attempt to beat the thing to death and possibly break off the end of the stinger while at it. Capturing this on video required high-speed cameras that can take up to 1,200 frames per second. It appears to be a blur.

“We used digital tracking technology to map the movements from frame-to-frame in order to estimate things such as velocity and acceleration,” said Clark. “We did this in order to understand the physical performance of banded geckos relative to other animals.”

After slowing down that blur, the researchers were able to analyze every single movement made by the headbanging gecko. It inflicts blunt force trauma on the scorpion in its jaws by shaking its head and body in cyclic sideways motions many times over. The speed at which they can do this is so rapid that even the footage that was slowed down 5x is too fast to make out individual movements. It is only in the version that is slowed down 16x that you can see how much energy the gecko puts into whacking the scorpion back and forth.

This method of immobilizing scorpion prey isn’t completely foolproof. Whether they are resistant is unknown, and to find out, extensive toxin resistance tests would be needed, but it would hardly be surprising if they have built up resistance. They have already adapted to eating one one of the most intimidating bugs in the desert. Clark has seen geckos get stung, but the venom did not seem to have any effect on them.

“We have speculated about the possibility of venom resistance,” he said. “It’s something that has been found in other scorpion predators, so it’s possible, but we have no idea if it occurs in these geckos.”

Too bad there's no Gecko character in Mortal Kombat, because if he fought Scorpion, you know who would be the fatality.